Sanctification – Christian obedience, the life after conversion – can seem like a paralyzing endeavor. What more do I have to gain? What else can there be? I am saved; where do I go from here? The feeling is understandable. I certainly have felt it. If we move out to the left, we work too much as to pay back God’s grace – the debtor’s ethic. If we move to the right, we work too little and bear no fruit – we have not faith (James 2 speaks to the fallacy of this extreme). Well then, I am fixated on what not to do, but lost in the balance. Paul in his letter to the Philippians mildly speaks to this issue that Christians face.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Firstly, we are urged by Paul to indeed continue, and work out our salvation. Pursue what you have already obtained, and do this with fear and trembling. Do it with a sense of who God is, and God’s reality is a frightful observance. To see God in all of His power and glory strikes fear into the heart of the beholder. So it is natural to ask: Why is fear necessary to sanctification? What does fear do to fuel my obedience? Simply, the fear of God naturally breeds trust in God. Fear is not an ill-fated compulsion to act as to not anger God, it is the correct response to the correct perception. Therefore, seeing God as God coupled with the truth that He is indeed “for you” compels you to trust Him. So fear is synonymous to trust, and trust is necessary to obedience; for it is the foundation of faith in God. Trust leads the called to faith, and faith is fuel of obedience. It is impossible to please God without it (Hebrews 11:6), and any work apart from faith is sin (Romans 14:23). Therefore, when Paul desires to see the called work with fear and trembling, he is urging them to obey in faith.
Secondly, this working is not dependent on the called. In the deepest sense, Christian obedience is not dependent on the Christian. It is dependent on God’s work in the Christian. See how this easily becomes paralyzing? Here is the follower of Christ being commanded to work out his salvation, yet it is not his doing. If it is not his doing, then how can he be responsible for it? The paradox is not hidden by Paul; he must clearly see it, and he does not shy away. Therefore, the balance is found in this: Work out what God works in you. One level can not be performed without the other. The Christian must work, yet it is God who must work it. So that whenever it is possible to obey, the Christian is held responsible to do it, but is humbled in the fact that it was not their own doing. So why does Paul word it this way? Why not just leave it at the first command? It must be to show the true dependence and humility required for the Christian life. Without dependence on God in faith, the Christian fails.